7 Quick Tips on How to Improve Your Productivity

Students are beginning their academic years and fresh graduates are starting their new jobs and career paths.

Personality is seasonal and with Autumn fast approaching, you’ll be able to tune into your inner hermit and really maximise the quality of your work, in whatever you do.

To make sure you can tap into your full potential, here are some quick tips on how to increase your productivity – using scientific evidence or otherwise.

Let’s get right down to it.

Change your location often

Changing location of your work or study every now and then not only keeps the mind stimulated, but it keeps things fresh and prevents burnout effects.

As Cal Newport says:

“Disengagement helps refresh your mind & facilitates the process of finding new angles & insights when you begin your work again.” 

Anchor mental and mood states to places

Also, you anchor mental and emotional states to the environments you work in.

Use this to your advantage.

For example, if you go a specific café, set your mind to maximum productivity.

So whenever you go to that café, the place itself will arouse feelings of productivity and the mental and emotional states associated with productivity.

You just have to make that initial link and over time, the association will form.

Your brain is at its most productive between waking and dinner

Upon waking up, your mind is the freshest it can be – technically.

And before eating.

If you eat a big meal, you might get sluggish, you might get sleepy, your motivation may wane etc.

For instance, popular blogger James Clear wakes up, has a big glass of water and works until he gets hungry, usually many hours later. He claims this is when he is at his most productive.

What’s also important to know is that you can only sustain maximum productivity during a 4-hour period, according to author of the Procrastination Equation, Dr. Piers Steel.

Here’s Piers quoted at length to fully illustrate the point:

“You want to tackle it when you have the most zip, and when that is depends upon your circadian rhythm. Some of us are morning larks, relentlessly chipper and active early in the morning, filling gyms in the pre-dawn hours.

Others are night owls, slow starters whose energy levels peak later in the day (…). Whatever your rhythm, schedule that report writing to start a few hours after you wake up; it’s when your mind operates at maximum efficiency, a periods that last about four hours.

If you woke at seven in the morning, for instance, your peak performance likely occurs between ten and two, not really that wide a window. But if you clear your desk, turn off your e-mail and shut your door for those hours, you can get an amazing amount of work done.

You can extend this efficiency phase with a brief nap, twenty minutes or so, but if you’re in an office environment, that’s usually not possible. Still, a quick walk around the block can also refresh you around lunchtime.”

Willpower and creativity

But it’s not just about your mind being fresh in the morning upon waking up, but that’s when your motivational resources are highest as well.

Your willpower is replenished (it is like a muscle, after all).

According to world-famous cartoonist and creator of the comic “Dilbert”, Scott Adams also believes that upon waking up – creativity is at its peak, too.

Fill small patches of free time with productive work if you have a fractured schedule 

A fractured schedule can seem like your productivity’s worst enemy, but it doesn’t have to be.

If you find yourself with a 2-hour window in between commitments or meeting, for example, just schedule a “meeting with yourself” where you can enjoy complete and uniterrupted focus (i.e. a focus block).

Take regular breaks

Regular breaks help maximise your energy and, if you’re a student, helps with retention of material.

Regular breaks are crucial to your productivity.

Mike Cernovich, for example, works in 45-minute bursts sandwiched with regular 10-15 minute breaks.

In his book How to Win at College (which I highly recommend in my review of the book), Cal Newport compiles advice of straight-A students and finds that the most successful students worked for 50 minutes at a time and took 10-15 minute regular breaks.

However, you have to find out what works for you through trial and error. How long can you work at maximum capacity? How long do you need your breaks to be?

It all depends on how you feel. There’s is no magic formula.

For instance, world-renowned copywriter Eugene Schwarz had a regime where he worked for 33 minutes and 33 seconds and would take short breaks.

However long you can work, the common pattern here is that regular breaks are vital.

Do work in isolation

Remember what I said earlier about anchoring mood and mental states to environments?

Well, if you do that with a particular place, whether it be your favourite café or a particular place in the library, working in isolation is the best thing you could do for your productivity.

InHow to Manage Your Day-To-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, & Sharpen Your Creative Mind, Leo Babauta calls these solitude blocks:

“For many people, the best time for solitude is early in the morning. The kids are still sleeping and everything is quiet. I get my best work done then, and the great thing it that nothing comes up that early to disrupt your schedule.”

But there is also a lot of psychology involved in how you actually approach a solitude block. You gear yourself up mentally, motivate yourself, and make an event out of your productivity.

Here’s Cal:

Do no underestimate psychology in becoming an effective student. Every one follows some variant of this isolation strategy. It also increases the importance of the work you are about to tackle.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

How to Motivate Others – Secrets on What Drives Us

A friend of mine told me the story of an elderly man who enjoyed reading a book or newspaper on a bench at the local park.

Everyday, he would go to his favourite bench to sit down and read, all the while enjoying peace and quiet, the fresh cool breeze and the lush greenery that surrounded him.

One day, two little overexcited boys would appear.

They would chase each other, play fight, shout, scream, run around frantically, frolic in the mud, and cry to their mothers when one accidentally hurt the other.

The man consoles himself by thinking that they’ll soon get bored and finally go away and he’ll be able to read his book in peace. But five minutes go by, ten minutes go by, fifteen minutes go by and they’re still boisterous in their play. 

After many minutes of what seemed like a tiny eternity to the old man – playtime was over and the two boys were escorted out of the park by their mothers.

I barely got any reading done, the old man thought to himself.

The man gets up and leaves, hoping that he’ll be able to read his book in blissful peace tomorrow.

15370423962_a70150db70_z.jpg
David Gibb via Flickr

The next day the man returns with his book and notices that the park is as empty as ever.

He reads his book and relishes every sentence, thoroughly enjoying his time at the park. 

Then he hears a child’s giggle.

And then he hears a couple of children giggling and stomping, mumbling unintelligible utterances – the two little boys were there the next day.

And the next.

And the next.

A cold realisation dawned on the old man.

The tranquility of this once forgotten pocket of the world suddenly ceased to exist.

The man is displeased. How do I make them stop playing here he thinks to himself. 

And how do I do it in an ethical manner?

One day, when the boys were playing, the old man called them to approach him as he were sitting on the bench.

Nowadays, it might come across as strange if you were to see an elderly person beckoning two younger children from afar, pleading for them to come closer.

Once the boys approached the old man, he gave them £1 each.

“I’ll pay you each one pound if you continue to play here, and I’ll pay you each the same amount if I see you playing here tomorrow.”

In an instant, the boys accepted the money and then scurried away joyously to resume what was hell on earth for the old man.

The following day, the children would run up to the man, ecstatic to collect their £1 each.

As promised, the man would give them their due reward.

The same ritual occurred the next day, and the next.

One day, the children approached the old man and extended their little palms toward him, eagerly waiting for their pound.

“Could we get our pounds, please?” they squeaked.

“I won’t give you any money,” said the old man. This frustrated the two boys.

“Well,” they started, angrily, “in that case – we won’t play here anymore!”

The old man never saw the two little boys ever again.

Intrinsic v.s. Extrinsic Motivation

What just happened there?

In the beginning, the two boys would come to the park just to run around and feel the wind on their face, to play with each other, and laugh and cry in joy without a care in the world.

The kids loved playing in the park. It was a source of great joy, something they did out of their own volition. They were intrinsically motivated to play in the park.

But when the old man told the children that he would pay them to play in the park, the focus of the kids’ motivation changed.

They were no longer intrinsically motivated but extrinsically motivated.

That is, they expected an external form of reward to motivate them to continue playing in the park.

Their playtime became contingent on receiving monetary reward.

They no longer ran to feel the wind on their face or feel the grass poking at their soles.

They played for money.

When the man stopped paying the children – the boys’ focus shifted to the unfairness and anxiety of the situation and so they rebelled and refused to play.

Payment clouds intrinsic motivation

In fact, recent studies show that paying people for good behaviour like donating blood can even cut blood donations in half.

By paying a blood donor, you’re crowding out their intrinsic motivation to do good in the world.

Similarly, if parents reward their children for taking out the trash, they’re doing themselves a tremendous disservice.

Rather than encourage their children to do a good deed stemming from intrinsic motivation, paying them will cloud this motivation out.

This means that not only will the parents have to pay the children to take out the trash whenever needed, but they may even have to be increase the payment to get the same level of compliance.

Payment forces one to forfeit autonomy and control

Imagine a painter who paints for a living.

A painter doesn’t always know when he’ll manage to sell his next painting. 

But the painter paints anyway, knowing that someday down the line – someone will buy his work.

In the meantime – his intrinsic motivation is what sustains him.

His love for painting is what keeps him going.

The painter will paint just because he just loves the feeling he experiences every time his brush connects to the canvas; he enjoys the pursuit of mastery and perfection, the energy and excitement he experiences when painting something he’s never tried before…

The painter paints whenever he feels like it, for however long he wants.

The painter paints out of passion.

And so whenever he manages to finish a painting – he tries to sell it.

“If they took away my paints, I’d use pastels.

If they took away my pastels, I’d use crayons.

If they took away my crayons, I’d use pencils.

If they stripped me bare naked and threw me in a jail cell – I’d spit on my fingers and paint the cell walls.”

-Pablo Picasso

However, if a customer requests a particular painting and pays him to do the work, this clouds out the painter’s creativity and intrinsic motivation to do it.

Importantly, this ‘if-then’ reward forces the painter to forfeit some of his autonomy and control over his schedule.

This affects his enjoyment of the process and his ability to paint on his own terms – whenever he feels like it.

In a nutshell:

Payment:

  • Shifts the focus to extrinsic motivation,
  • Stifles creativity,
  • Crowds out intrinsic motivations,
  • Forces a loss of autonomy and control.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.

Thank you to Philip C. for telling me this story.

Upgrade Your Notion of Personal Success Using One Simple Method

Success can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people.

Some find personal achievement in money, awards, diplomas.

Others in their name written in an old book, their name engraved on a crystal trophy, their name embedded in a terrazzo and brass star in a sidewalk…

And even other others pursue critical acclaim for their novel, movie, painting, song…

Depending on how much or how little of those things they have experienced in life, people can to a fair degree of certainty assess how successful they’ve been in their ventures when lost in a moment of reflection.

Whatever your notion of personal success may be though – you won’t get there alone.

Sure – drive, ambition, determination, consistency, attention to detail, mental toughness are all some of the key characteristics that will get you far but remember:

“No man is an island.”

To paraphrase what I heard Grayson Perry once say – whatever success you might have experienced up until this point, it would be foolish to think that you did it all by yourself.

You’ve had many people behind the scenes support you in your journey up to this point.

You have them to thank for it.

Because without them – in all likelihood, you wouldn’t be here.

Moms, dads, brothers, sisters, friends, mentors, dissertation supervisors – they all could have had some bearing on whatever success you have already enjoyed in your life; they all could have influenced your life in both immeasurable and nuanced ways.

They – as well as new and special characters that have yet to appear in your life – will also be a big part of whatever success that you have yet to experience someday down the line.

To a vast extent, your personal success boils down to the people that will help you achieve it.

That is, to who you know and who you surround yourself with.

“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

-Jim Rohn

To upgrade your notion of personal success, find the hotspots and surround yourself with phenomenal achievers.

Hot spots 

In his book Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky observed that the success of a company is often built upon the shoulders of a handful of ‘go-to’ people.

Here’s Scott:

“A study done in one large Fortune 500 company asked employees to complete a survey about who they go to for help.

Whether it was a computer question, a finance inquiry, or something about the history of the business, employees were asked to provide the names of their ‘go-to’ people.

Once the data points were collected, researchers mapped it out to graphically illustrate the flows of information. It quickly became clear that there were various particularly active ‘nodes’ of information.

Scattered throughout the organization, a handful of people functioned as the dominant go-to people who everyone else relied upon.”

Scott calls these valuable people hot spots.

Hot spots, he emphasises, are people with a huge amount of social power.

Scott goes on to talk about how he spent some time with Malcolm Gladwell years ago and how Gladwell had made a strong case for people with social power.

Here’s Scott once again:

“Gladwell explained that social power is different than economic or political power. It is not correlated with status or demographics.

Rather, people with social power have the special ability to connect to other en masse. They tend to always be in the know, and they are respected, although not necessarily in a hierarchical way.”

Phenomenal achievers

Some time ago, I read a fantastic book that had changed the way I viewed university.

It compelled me to take action and make the most of my final year at uni, and gave me guidance and direction on how to accomplish that.

The book in question is Cal Newport’s How to Win at College and I was so impressed by it that I wrote a review of it.

One of the tips Cal mentioned in this book was related to phenomenal achievers.

Here’s Cal on what a phenomenal achiever is:

“What is a phenomenal achiever? Every school has them. It’s that rather nice math major who happens to be a Rhodes Scholar, NSF Graduate Fellowship winner, and author of a chapter in a calculus textbook.

Or that quiet drama major who has already produced two plays, won a bevy of creative awards, and is working seriously on his first novel.

Or that student assembly officer who just formed a statewide youth mentoring program, and works on national political campaigns during his off-terms.”

What Cal suggests is to make it a habit to find and meet these people as they will expand the scope of your ambition, inject an excitement into your life and a sense of possibility that will compel you to act so that you too become a phenomenal achiever as well.

Here’s Cal:

“The idea here is to expose yourself to possibility. When you spend enough time talking-to phenomenal achiever, two things happen.

First, you will become inspired. The though of accomplishing the sort of achievements that fill these student’s résumés will pique your energy. 

Second, learning from the details of their endeavours, you begin to notice how the interests in your life could feasibly lead to similar accomplishments.”

What You Can Do to Upgrade Your Notion of Personal Success

Make a habit out of reaching out to the hot spots; the people who have a wealth of information and have an uncanny ability to connect with people en masse. 

But also empower these people who always seem to be in the know. Perhaps you could be the missing link in helping them get the recognition that they deserve.

Make a habit out of finding and meeting the phenomenal achievers.

If you spend enough time with phenomenal achievers, their traits will rub off on you and you will inevitably soak up all the intangible qualities that make them so phenomenal.

Phenomenal achievers operate on a specific brain frequency and by surrounding yourself with such people you tap into that frequency and ‘brainwash’ yourself into thinking like them.

Also, you learn about the various rituals, habits, and routines that are unique to them in supporting their ambition and long-term goals. By modelling these processes, you can model success.

Before you know it – you will also become a phenomenal achiever.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more life-optimising stuff.

What is Nostalgia?

What is nostalgia all about?

Whenever you remember an ordinary event, you rarely experience both happiness and sadness at the same time.

But during recollection of a nostalgic event, we tend to have that exact co-activation of those feelings.

The New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) defines nostalgia as “a sentimental longing for the past.”

I don’t necessarily enjoy looking at old pictures and watching videos of my childhood too much. It puts me in a melancholic mood that is difficult to shake off later.

Plus I looked ridiculous most of the time.

nostalgia.jpg
via lightnarcissus.com

Indeed, nostalgia is a bittersweet emotion.

Nostalgia combines the pleasant memory of the past with the cold realisation that a desirable aspect of that past is irredeemably lost.

When experiencing nostalgia, we experience both joy and a sense of loss as the past can no longer be recreated.

The link between warmth, joy, and affection is not surprising in this context. Similarly, the experience of nostalgia as a ‘‘bittersweet’’ emotion has been frequently noted in the literature.

The pleasant memory of the past is combined with a sense of loss associated with the realization that the past cannot be recreated.

What do we get nostalgic about?

Nostalgia expert Tim Wildschut of the University of Southampton suggests that we get nostalgic about close others (family members, friends, partners), momentous events (birthdays, vacations), and settings (sunsets, lakes).

I personally used to get nostalgic about WWE and my primary school years.

I still get super nostalgic about The O.C and my high school years though.

Just thought I’d put that out there…

Nostalgia makes you feel happy

Tim Wildschut of the University of Southampton and his colleagues suggests that people think of nostalgic experiences whenever they feel sad.

“I think of nostalgic experiences when I am sad as they often make me feel better”

But they also tend to think of their close ones when they’re sad, too.

“If I ever feel lonely or sad I tend to think of my friends or family who I haven’t seen in a long time”

Wildschut claims that nostalgia serves as a “repository of positive affect.”

In other words, we use nostalgia to access the joyous memories in our memory.

By tapping into these memories through nostalgia and remembering, we get to relive those moments of joy, elation, and happiness.

Nostalgia helps you feel less alone

Wildschut goes on to suggest that experiencing nostalgia is a way of making yourself feel less alone, feel less lonely.

Whenever you might be feeling the aching pang of loneliness, experiencing nostalgia will cement the symbolic ties with the important people in your life, helping those people become a part of your present, even for a fleeting moment.

It also gives you a sense of social support.

This is why Wildschut refers to nostalgia as a social emotion.

In his paper, Tim Wildschut observed that nostalgic participants “felt more loved and protected, had reduced attachment anxiety and avoidance, and reported greater interpersonal competence.”

These participants also felt a stronger sense of social connectedness to the close people in their life.

According to Xinyue Zhou of Sun Yat-Sen University and colleagues nostalgia is a psychological resource that protects and fosters mental health.

Nostalgia gives you meaning

The past makes the present meaningful.

This way, nostalgia boosts optimism about life but also “assuages existential threat.”

Wildschut and co. also say that nostalgia may “spark inspiration and foster creativity.”

Nostalgia boosted perceptions of life as meaningful and assuaged existential threat.

Fighting the future with the past

According to Jacob Juhl of the North Dakota State University and his colleagues, nostalgia acts as a buffer against existential threat.

They observe that, through nostalgia, people “cling to the relationships, groups, and beliefs that imbue their lives with purpose, stability and permanence.”

They cling to these things because it prevents death cognition from turning into death anxiety.

Having said that, nostalgia is an important psychological mechanism that comforts us, when reminded of our own mortality.

It plays the role of an existential resource.

P.S. Thanks for reading. If you liked this, feel free to sign up to my free weekly newsletter for more psychological insights into everyday life.